Virtual classrooms at GEMS help students learn during coronavirus era

By Daniel Patton, April 1, 2020


GEMS World Academy temporarily shuttered its New Eastside campus on Friday, March 13, in accordance with Illinois Governor Pritzker’s order to close all of the state’s public and private schools to combat the spread of coronavirus. Classes resumed via online videoconferencing the following Monday.

Since then, GEMS hasn’t missed a beat. The school has been executing its remote learning plan every weekday while keeping pace with the teachers’ original lesson plans, which include lessons, individual work, and community and socializing time.

5th grader Shiven Kammula meeting via Zoom with his class and the school counselor discussing coping strategies

“We kind of sensed this was coming, so we already had this conversation with kids,” recalled Head of School Tom Cangiano. “They were prepared and had all the equipment they needed.”

The equipment includes iPad minis that students received when they were in junior kindergarten and MacBook Pros in fourth grade. The gear makes a fitting complement to the school’s tech-savvy methodology of its young scholars.

GEMS is an International Baccalaureate school that educates a diverse population of students from preschool through grade 12. With a strong focus on innovation, it incorporates emerging technology into the daily routine.

As a result, students made a rather easy transition from classroom to home.

Plugging into online applications like Zoom and Google Meet, they attend class, form breakout groups, learn from guest lecturers, and collaborate on digital versions of the traditional white board. Recently, the fourth graders studied immigration by listening to the personal stories of a Filipino archaeologist from National Geographic Explorer.

According to Director of Innovation Peg Keiner, it’s been more or less school as usual. “We had the infrastructure in place, and teachers were already doing this,” she explained. “We have a program that believes that children can learn everywhere. We just added Zoom.”

Cangiano, who teaches a literature class, said that replicating the dynamic of a group discussion with students “is not as challenging as you think.”

“Teachers are using all kinds of different strategies,” he added. “They might be sharing their screens and embedding videos.”


The Field Studies Program

A slightly modified version of the school’s unique Field Studies program also continues to thrive. As part of a commitment to inquiry-based learning, the program has traditionally encouraged students to explore their surroundings, engage with the community, and learn from their
experiences. It complements the school’s “Chicago curriculum,” which Cangiano summarized by saying, “you become a great global citizen if you are a great local citizen.”

4th grade students practice counting in French class via Zoom (photo: of Gems World Academy)

Now that students are studying remotely, instead of analyzing the food supply chain by visiting Mariano’s or observing symbiosis by watching dogs and their owners in the park, the students journey through their immediate surroundings.

“We’re encouraging kids to look at the things we can learn from home,” Keiner explained. “Normally, we would go to Mariano’s; but now we’re going to go to the fridge.”

Besides bringing lessons into bedrooms and kitchen tables (where preschoolers seem to prefer studying math), the virtual classrooms reinforce an essential component of education that cannot be learned through books or computers.


Creating communities

“People and interaction are the most important,” Keiner said. “In the absence of a physical, real-time community, we’ve had to create communities. From kindergarten up to 12th grade, we’ve had children on Zoom calls with each other, cultivating and retaining relationships we’ve built.”

Gems lower school team members have a virtual meeting on Zoom (photo: Gems World Academy)

Although Cangiano has noticed that some of the students appear to “miss being physically present,” he said that GEMS teachers and counselors offer one-on-one calls and online support, and the parents have been “incredible.”

“Our message to parents was that, in order for this to work, this had to be a team effort,” Cangiano said. The message was contained in a booklet that outlined GEMS remote learning plan and asked parents for feedback. “Everybody had helpful tips,” he added. “We couldn’t be happier.”

This connectivity fuels a larger effort that will help everyone move forward, according to Director of Admissions Adriana Mourgelas. “When you not only have wonderful administrators who are supportive of faculty but also parents, that’s something that helps,” she said. “We are a community and we’ll get through this together.”

In that spirit, GEMS sends a survey to parents every Friday to encourage communication and feedback on how things are going.

“We got a gauge on challenges so that we could adjust what we’re doing so that we could make those tweaks and fine tune those things,” explained Cangiano. “About 90% of our respondents said it was going pretty darn well.”

‘The heart of the city’: State Street Corridor to be revitalized

by Stephanie Racine

“Elevating State” will be the goal and catchphrase of a new plan to revamp the State Street Corridor in the Chicago Loop.

The State Street Corridor plan was the main focus of the Chicago Loop Alliance and Foundation Annual Meeting on Feb. 20. Ernest Wong, co-founder and principal of Site Design Group, presented his plan for the revitalization.

“I am excited about the State Street Corridor plan,” said Deputy Mayor of Economic and Neighborhood Development Samir Mayekar in his speech at the meeting. 

State Street has a long history of being the hub of commerce and tourism in Chicago, Wong said. Marshall Field’s and Sears were heavily visited by locals and tourists for many years in the 1900s, but Wong recognizes commerce has changed.

 “Retail is more of an experience” he said. 

With commerce change, so must the location change, according to Wong’s proposal. Wong has looked to other famous streets for inspiration and examined why they are so popular.

Great activities and destinations, safety, equitability, accessibility and an inviting nature are all aspects of a street designed to be visited, Wong said. 

He observed the humor of streets in Shanghai with anthropomorphized dumpling sculptures and noted that it really is the people that make a place. 

Wong plans to conduct workshops this year that focus on three features of developing State Street—place, mobility and market. 

Wong and Chicago Loop Alliance welcome the opinions of residents on how to Elevate State Street in the upcoming months. By late 2020, using the workshops plus feedback from residents, Wong will solidify the plan for the corridor. 

“The Loop is the heart of the city, and we want to make sure the heart is strong,” Mayekar said. 

To learn more about the project and to lend your voice to the upcoming plan, text ELEVATE to #63566 or visit

Turning trash into treasure: New Eastsiders give back

by Stephanie Racine

What started out as a regifting event turned into something much more. 

In December, a group of Parkshore residents had an idea. Resident Jonni Miklos and social director of the Parkshore, Charlene Roderick, met to discuss how to give back for the holiday season. Miklos noted that people who moved from the suburbs to the Parkshore, 195 N. Harbor Drive, had a lot of stuff, but less room to store it in a downtown Chicago condo. 

“Someone’s trash is somebody else’s treasure,” Roderick said.

From Dec. 4-7, Parkshore residents brought down items they no longer needed for others to purchase.

“People brought things out in droves,” Roderick said.

All the proceeds went to The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. 

Roderick and Miklos were hoping about $2,020 but Parkshore residents raised $6,146. 

“I cried when I saw it was [that much],” Roderick said.

Residents said the event went beyond the money being raised—it gave residents a sense of community.

“People were talking about this building coming together,” resident Russ Fahrner said.

It was more than just getting together for a glass of wine—it was staying engaged with one another over the course of a few days, he said.

Resident Barbara Thomas felt the residents came together as a team.

“Together each accomplishes more…Team,” she said. “I felt as if I had a family of people who cared.”

Residents did everything they could to support the event, according to Roderick. If they didn’t have items to donate, there was a box for monetary donations. If they were unable to donate, residents volunteered their time to work the event. 

Miklos believed people were so enthusiastic because the event was supporting a greater good.

“Everyone was committed to contributing to make a difference,” Miklos said.

One person who was especially thankful was executive director of Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Doug Schenkelberg.

“We appreciate it when people choose to support our work,” Schenkelberg said. 

Schenkelberg was unaware the money was being raised and thought it was “wonderful” that Parkshore chose his organization. Chicago Coalition for the Homeless is an advocacy organization that seeks to prevent homelessness. Approximately 86,000 people are homeless in Chicago.

Members of the Parkshore Board met to present Schenkelberg with their check on Jan. 24. Roderick thanked the board for their willingness to come together as a community.

Overall, residents hoped that this event would start a precedent. 

“Other buildings ought to take this on,” Roderick said.

To learn more about Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, visit

Local charities left short-handed after season of giving

by Jacqueline Covey

The Chicago Help Initiative gives free meals to guests who are in need. During the holidays, there is no shortage of volunteers, but post giving-season, this organization, like many non-profits in the area, becomes short-handed.

Executive Director of Chicago Help Initiative Doug Fraser sees an increase in volunteerism around Christmas each year, but he said that’s not when it’s needed. Between now and February, he’s calling on Christmas-time aides to  re-sign up with the organization. New volunteers are  always welcome, too. 

Every Wednesday, volunteers provide sit-down dinners to 130 guests and 70  take out meals as part of the Chicago Help Initiative free meals program. The idea is that providing a dignified experience fulfills a sense of place for participants. Before dinner, some guests take advantage of classes in  technology, creative writing and art facilitated by  Catholic Charities at their community center located at 721 N. LaSalle St.

“We are all a community, we all have each other,” said Sandra Dillion, a student in the knitting group. “We  share our ideas and our thoughts. If we get stuck, we are here to help each other out.”

The first dinner was in  2001 when Catholic Charities opened their space for  a weekly gathering with food donated from local restaurants. A speaker  mini-series was added,  then social and health services were brought in and  over the years relationships have been built between long time volunteers and guests.

“We have volunteers of all ages and backgrounds, some of whom have been  coming for years,” said Brigid Murphy of Catholic Charities. “There are lovely  relationships that have developed among volunteers  and supper guests.”

The organization has created a space built on  respect where social stigmas are broken down. For  a couple hours, guests can  enjoy the simple joy of having a warm meal in a warm  place with friends.

“What we’ve learned is  that if you treat a home- less person with respect…  we can get them off the  streets,” founder and president Jacqueline Hayes said.  “Efforts to help are good, but we fill them up with  such good feelings about themselves.”

As a Chicago real estate broker specializing in retail  leasing along the Magnificent Mile and Oak Street,  Hayes sought ways to  help the homeless population that congregated at  storefronts.

Now, 20 years after the  group began, the organization is still growing largely  as a result of a robust volunteer community.

For more information or to volunteer, contact the Chicago Help Initiative, 440 N Wells St., Suite 440, Chicago, (312) 448-0045  or visit  

Chair Yoga helps New Eastsiders embrace an active lifestyle

by Mat Cohen

When people think of yoga, they often think of twisting, sweating and breathing in a 95-degree room. However, that’s not always the case.

Chair Yoga is practiced around the neighborhood, including at Renaissance Court in the Chicago Cultural Center and a senior class at the Maggie Daley Park Fieldhouse.

Peggy Figiel teaches the class at 12:30 p.m. on Tuesdays at Renaissance Court.

“Seeing people move into the pose and smile and say ‘I did it,’” she said, “that’s one of the best things.”

Figiel began teaching yoga to seniors at a suburban park district 16 years ago. 

“I felt like (seniors) understood it better,” she said.  “It wasn’t about twisting and sweating. It was about relaxing, going inside and finding your inner peace. It was more of an inner exercise.”

There are benefits beyond calming your mind. In Chair Yoga, students do exercises sitting in a chair and standing beside it. They won’t be on their knees or lying on a mat.

“Even doing chair yoga you are still going to improve your balance, your muscles, your bones and increase range of motion,” Figiel said.

Fifteen women regularly attend the Chair Yoga class at Renaissance Court. Figiel  makes the environment welcoming for participants of all  abilities.

“There are so many ways to  modify and they can still do  yoga,” she said. “There are unmeasured benefits and I’m just  here to guide them along.”

 Rose Lathan, who has been taking the class for four years, said the modifications are very helpful.

“I also take a class at LA Fitness with the mat and I can’t do all the poses,” she said. “But here she shows me different ways I can do it and be successful. I always feel great after.”

Another regular yogi, Elvira Azarcon, clearly feels the bene- fits of the class. 

“It’s really great,” she said. “I’ve been coming for a while and I can feel a difference with my flexibility and my joints.”

Figiel also teaches classes in 400 E. Randolph, 360 E.  Randolph and 340 E. Randolph. She loves the New  Eastside community and working with the people in the neighborhood.

“Everyone is still very active,” she said. “You have to walk and you have to be mobile. People can’t run or ride their bike maybe as much as they  want to, but they can still get a workout doing yoga.”

For more information about  the Chair Yoga classes at Renaissance Court, visit and for information about the programs at Maggie Daley  Fieldhouse visit

Chicago’s Christmas history a mix of traditions

Photo credit: Chicago Theatre street scene 1951 Chicago History Museum, ICHi-019350; Harold Beach, photographer

By Elisa Shoenberger

Chicago’s Christmas traditions are  a mixture of ethnic and racial celebrations, combined with the strategy  of the city’s retailers to form the public celebrations we know today.

“One of the things people don’t  know is that 19th century immigrants (brought) many of the Christ- mas traditions that we know in the  U.S.,” said Julius Jones, assistant curator at the Chicago History Museum. While the Christkindlmarket is a relatively new tradition in Chicago,  beginning in 1996, German Christ- mas traditions go back to before the  Great Chicago Fire in 1871. 

But Chicago’s Christmas traditions aren’t just based on Germanic  traditions. Ethnic and racial groups  throughout the city celebrate the holiday in their own robust and unique  ways, Jones said. For example, a midnight Christmas processional takes place in the Ukrainian Village in January, in accordance with the Ukrainian Orthodox calendar.

Many Chicagoans, regardless of background, have traditions centering on the great Christmas tree in the Walnut Room of the former Marshall Field’s department store. In 1907, waiters put up the tree themselves in the room, according to Jones. By the mid-20th century, it was the biggest Christmas tree in the  U.S. and people would  flock from all  over to see it. Macy’s, the current occupant of the former Marshall Field’s  building, keeps the tradition going.

“Retailers absolutely made Christmas into what it is now—a shopping experience,” Bill Savage,  Northwestern professor and Chicago historian, said. Retailers such  as Marshall Field’s and Montgomery Ward were instrumental  in creating the visual culture of Christmas, Jones said.  

The Ward catalog “was the place where you ordered Christmas presents from afar. Marshall Field’s was where families went to look at the window decorations, and to not just buy Christmas presents, but as  a family outing,” Savage said, noting that even the famous character Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was  first commissioned by retailer Montgomery Ward in 1939.

While certain traditions have persisted, some traditions have fallen by the wayside. Notably, the  Christmas Tree Ship that allegedly brought thousands of trees to  Chicago in the late 19th century. A  ship called Rouse Simmons brought trees from Michigan, until it sank in a terrible storm in 1912.

A year later, Chicago put up its  first official tree in north Grant  Park, commissioned by Mayor Carter Harrison Jr.  The tradition continues but now in Millennium Park.   The tree had been moved to Daley Plaza in 1966 and in 1982 it stood at State Street and Wacker Drive.  

Tiny Tim lives here: New Eastside resident shines in Goodman Theatre’s ‘A Christmas Carol’

by Stephanie Racine

Being cast as the alternate for Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol,” was the result of tenacity by 7-year-old Vikram Konkimalla, a resident in New Eastside.

“‘Resilience always  pays off’ is our family motto,” Vikram’s mother Reema Konkimalla said.

This year was Vikram’s third time auditioning for Tiny Tim, and this time he won the part. Being the alternate for Tiny Tim means he is in the production on  the weekdays, while Vikram’s counter- part, 12-year-old Paris Strickland, plays  the part on the weekends.

Vikram prepared for the role by watching the show several times, reading the Charles Dickens classic and studying a biography about Dickens, according to his mother.

“He was very well prepared this year and very confident,” Konkimalla said.

The Goodman Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Carol” is in its 42nd year. Many families have made it an annual tradition, according to Publicity Director for Goodman Theatre Denise Schneider. The theater wants to make its yearly production special for all patrons.  If it’s someone’s first time at “A Christmas Carol,” that theater-goer receives a  certificate and a button.

Going to the production was special for  Vikram, even before he was cast. Vikram had his first viewing certificate signed by  Scrooge, played by Larry Yando. He presented it during show-and-tell at school. 

Being in the production has been a special experience for Vikram. He enjoys hanging out with the other kids in the production and going to special events to promote the play.

But his favorite part of being in “A Christmas Carol” involves being on stage.

Vikram’s favorite moment?

“When I get to say, ‘God bless us, everyone!’ at the end,” he said. 

Vikram and his mother agree that if he can do it, so can other kids if they give it their all.

“When I found out he got the part, I was so happy and emotional because my son was resilient in getting the role,” Konkimalla said.

“I was really happy. I have lots of fun,” Vikram said. 

See “A Christmas Carol” at the Good- man Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn Ave.,  through December 29. Tickets start at  $25 and are available at, (312) 443-3800 or the box office.  

‘Secret’ Ace to close: Gordon’s Ace family glue will continue to keep community strong

by Mat Cohen

It’s rare for a father-son duo to go to the local elementary school dressed as Santa and an elf to wish kids a merry Christmas. But for Jeremy Melnick and his dad, Les, it was to give back to the community they’ve been part of since 1950. Jeremy’s grandfather opened his first Gordon’s Ace Hardware store franchise on the corner of State  Street and Oak Street, neighboring Ogden Elementary School and expanded the number of their  stores over time to include a highly frequented but tucked away store at 680 N. Lakeshore Drive.

“It’s how I got started in the first place,” Jeremy Melnick said. “It was a daily, weekly conversation around the dinner table.”

 Melnick got his masters degree and left banking  21 years ago to partner with his dad in the family business. 

“In the back of my mind I think it was always  something I’d want to get into,” he said. “Twenty-one years later, here I am.”

Gordon’s Ace has eight locations, four scattered around downtown neighborhoods.

“We’ve been a part of it for so long,” Jeremy Melnick said. “There’s been an Ace store down here forever… you see generations of customers, which is always nice.”

 Gordon’s Ace didn’t always have the coverage  across the neighborhoods it has today.

“When we partnered with my dad we had a growth plan,” he said. “We opened our second store on Orleans in 2005. Eighteen months later we bought a four-store chain.

“We went from one to two, to six stores in a relatively short period of time from 2005 to 2007.”

The location in Streeterville, 680 N. Lake Shore Drive, has been nicknamed “the secret Ace” by its customers because there’s minimal signage.

The location, which has been in the neighbor- hood for 30 years, and owned by the Gordon’s for  seven, is closing the end of December.

 Store manager Bob Willis says he’s come to know many people throughout his 10 years as manager.

“They’re all sad to see us leaving,” he said. “It’s been the best part to help people and get to know people around the building and in the neighborhood.”

Despite being in the city, Gordon’s Ace stores create a local community, stocking such items as local barbecue sauce or humidity tools to suit high rises downtown.

The company gives back to the community everyday. Last year it raised $100,000 for Lurie Children’s Hospital.

They won’t rush into finding another Streeterville location, but with the right place and timing,  they hope to be back in the neighborhood soon.  

New Eastside seniors stay active and grateful

by Mat Cohen

No matter how many times you’ve been through it, the winter months never get easier.

Despite the weather, New Eastside seniors can get out and about downtown and enjoy a new class to help combat the winter blues. Some use services to get around, some use their own motivation, some use the Pedway and some use volunteering as a means to stay active, while many people just want to stay inside. Overall, seniors are thankful for time spent connecting with other people.

For Win Eggers, who lives in Park Millennium at 222 N. Columbus Drive, it takes personal motivation and a drive to get out of the house and volunteer.

“I’m retired and I could be sitting in the Lazy Boy,” she said. “I could be getting fatter and all that stuff but I just won’t let that happen to myself.”

Eggers volunteers at the Chicago Architecture Center and the Chicago Cultural Center and is grateful for interactions with different people during the holidays.

“It’s neat because you’re meeting a lot of tourists,” she said. “You learn about what their country is like this time of year and then compare it to what we’re like here. It’s just a great way to meet people and I’m thankful I’m able to do it.”

She said it’s easy to get around in New Eastside while staying relatively warm.

“I can take buses, trains, cabs, I got it all right here,” she said. “Also the Pedway, you don’t have any excuse for not walking because it’s always there and always nice in the winter time.”

The Renaissance Court Regional Senior Center, at the Cultural Center, offers bridge, movies, clown classes and a choral group. Joyce Gallagher, director of senior services of the Department of Family and Support Services, knows how important these programs can be during dark days of winter.

“There’s something for everyone,” she said. “And if there’s not, we actually go and create them for you.”

The City of Chicago operates 21 senior centers, each hoping to reach the senior population, from delivering an at-home meal or providing a new educational outlet.

For Gallagher, who lives at Harbor Point, looking at Lake Michigan is something she cherishes, no matter how cold it gets.

“I love to sit and look at the lake because it’s ever-changing,” she said. “We are so fortunate in the New Eastside to have that at our front door.”

Thank a veteran For Veterans Day

By Doug Rapp

Veterans Day is Monday, Nov. 11, and whether you mistakenly spell it with an apostrophe or not, there are several ways to thank Chicago-area veterans.

Officials with the Illinois Department of Veteran Affairs (IDVA) say there is no single way to thank a veteran.

“There is no best way to thank a veteran, other than to thank them sincerely,” said IDVA acting director Linda Chapa LaVia.

“If you want to offer to shake their hand, do that. If you want to simply say ‘Thank you for your service,’ do that. Whatever you do, do it with genuine gratitude for the freedom and security that their service has afforded you,” she said.

The aptly named Soldier Field will be honoring veterans at 11 a.m on Nov. 11 with a ceremony in the south courtyard. Originally named Grant Park Municipal Stadium, it was renamed Soldier Field after WWII at the request of the Chicago Gold Star Mothers, an organization for women who lost children in military service, according to Soldier Field’s website. 

The Pritzker Military Museum & Library, 104 S. Michigan Ave., will have free admission on Veterans Day. The museum features a 75th anniversary exhibit on D-Day along with an exhibit recognizing Medal of Honor recipients.

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